Digital Intervention: Remixes, Mash Ups and Pixel Pirates – Amanda Trevisanut

The art of remix and mash-ups is a contemporary cultural phenomenon that has been facilitated by the mass availability of digital software. Remix effectively describes the process of taking samples of existing media – for example audio tracks, film and television images – and knitting these samples into a new text. The active and creative use of cultural products by individuals challenges the paradigm of the passive spectator that is the corner-stone of traditional film theory. For instance, in the psychoanalytically based theories of Jean-Louis Baudry (1975), Laura Mulvey (1975) and Christian Metz (1983), the cinematic apparatus has been conceptualized as hegemonic instrument of ideology that interpolates the viewer into the world of the diegesis. The characterization of the spectator as a passive site of cultural and ideological reproduction is mirrored by the legalities of copyright that seek to indemnify the economic rights of the authors and producers of audio-visual media. In Digital Copyright and the Consumer Revolution: Hands off My iPod, legal scholar Matthew Rimmer asserts that, in copyright jurisprudence, the users of audio-visual media are decidedly absent, and that with the advent of digital technology there is an imperative to recognize:

consumers are not just mere ‘culture vultures’, engaged in the mindless, passive, bovine consumption of new artistic forms and technologies. The users of copyright works are engaged in a multitude of activities, including political expression, cultural transformation and technological tinkering. Moreover, the relationship of consumers to the dictates of copyright law is also a complex one, ranging from obedience to resistance and opposition to indifference and ignorance (2007, 13).

Consumers/users/spectators use of digital software to remediate – meaning that they “adopt aspects of prior, established media” (Ruston 2006) – copyright works draws attention to the failure of traditional theoretical and legal paradigms to recognize spectatorship and/or consumption, as a dynamic site of cultural (re)production. The use of digital technology to remix, remediate, re-master, re-imagine and re-member media artifacts into alternative configurations testifies to the interactive engagement of individuals with cultural artifacts by “blurring the boundaries between the real world of the reader/participant and the crafted world of the narrative” (Ruston 2006). The operations and aesthetics of digital technology, of “archives and databases”, ultimately “offer artists a vehicle for commenting on cultural and institutional practices through direct intervention” (Vesna 2000, 155). This essay does not presuppose that the advent of digital technologies have fundamentally altered the ways in which individuals engage with media. Rather, through an examination of Soda_Jerk and Sam Smith’s 2002-2006 film Pixel Pirate II: Attack of the Astro Elvis Video Clone this essay will aim to show how the specific use of digital software to sample and remix audio-visual images testifies to an existing (if largely theoretically neglected) dynamic relationship between individuals, society and media artifacts.

Between 2002 and 2006, Sydney artists Soda_Jerk – aka Dominique and Dan Angeloro – collaborated with video, sound and installation artist Sam Smith to produce Pixel Pirate II: Attack of the Astro Elvis Video Clone. This sixty minute “sci-fi / biblical epic/ action movie with a subplot of troubled romance” (sodajerk.com.au/sj/ppii.html) is entirely – and illegally – constructed of samples from Hollywood film, television, popular music, audio tracks, studio trademarks, DVD menus, copyright advertisements, games and online software. Using widely available digital software such as After Affects and Photoshop, Soda_Jerk together with Smith have “remixed” these samples into a narrative that challenges the economic and theoretical paradigm of the passive spectator. The film is set in the year 3001, where a team of Pixel Pirates formulate a plan to combat the evil tyrant Moses and his oppressive Copyright Commandments. In order to continue practicing the ancient art of remix they abduct Elvis Presley from 1955, create his video clone, who is then sent back to the year 2015 to assassinate Moses. By transforming into the Incredible Hulk, and later into the resurrected Jesus Christ, Elvis completes his mission, but only after he has overcome the Copyright Cops, and an assortment of action heroes including Indiana Jones from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), the Ghostbusters from the 1984 film of the same name and its 1989 sequel, Daniel-san of the Karate Kid (1984), Luke Skywalker of Star Wars (1977) and Lara Croft of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001).

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Figure 1: Courtesy of the Artists

The process of remix or “mash-ups” is thematically rendered as well as formally employed in Pixel Pirate to narrativise the ways in which digital technologies are being utilised by “consumers” to “engage in self-expression and creative play” (Rimmer 2007, 8). The form and content of the film ultimately challenges the delineation of cultural production and consumption by highlighting the dynamic nature of media, and situates the spectator/consumer/citizen as an agent of narrative meaning.

Soda_Jerk’s sample and remix of filmic icons into an anti-establishment narrative in Pixel Pirate is indicative of how the relationship between cultural production and consumption is being affected by widely available digital technologies. In The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich asserts that: “As we work with software and use the operations embedded in it, these operations become part of how we understand ourselves, and others, in the world. Strategies of working with computer data become our general cognitive strategies” (2001, 118). Manovich’s uses the term selection instead of sample to indicate how “in computer culture, authentic creation has been replaced by the selection from a menu” or a database of ready-made parts (2001, 124). He uses the term compositing, whereby the selections made are blended to “create continuous spaces out of disparate elements” to show how remix is influenced by the advent of digital culture (Manovich 2001, 155). This process of selection and compositing is explicated in the companion booklet to the Pixel Pirate DVD. In the chapter entitled “Shot Breakdowns: #2 The Final Showdown” a single frame from the film’s sequence in which Elvis as the Incredible Hulk is being vanquished by the Ghostbusters is shown to be a composite of six images – or parts thereof (see figure 1).

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Figure.2: Courtesy of the artists

The setting is a mash-up of the Paramount Studio’s logo, the ominous skyline from the conclusion of Donnie Darko (2001) and the desert from The Ten Commandments (1956). The crowd of debaucherous spectators and Moses are also from The Ten Commandments, whilst the Ghostbusters are taken from the 1984 film Ghostbusters, and the Incredible Hulk from the Hollywood incarnation of the comic book character in the 2003 film Hulk. The process of selection and compositing inherent to remix is shown by Soda_Jerk to be “transformative”, it remediates artistic forms authored by others in order to create a new product with a different – though related – set of cultural meanings (Rimmer 2007, 140). For instance, by including the Paramount logo in the composition of the film’s final showdown between champions of copyright law and its adversaries, Soda_Jerk manufacture a meta-narrative space (Manovich 2005) that articulates how Hollywood studios are a site of cultural production inhabited by their creations as well as spectators. Consequently, digital media “become simultaneously technical analogs and social expressions of our identity, we become simultaneously both the subject and object of contemporary media” (Bolter and Grusin 2000, 243). The Paramount logo ordinarily appears as an extra-diegetic element at the commencement of a given film to signify authorship and ownership, however in Pixel Pirate Paramount is shown to be only one component of the cultural landscape. Soda_Jerk utilise the operations of digital culture to understand the legacy of copyright law, who it protects, and how this affects the ability of individuals to engage with cultural artifacts.

Although the operations specific to digital software offer new methods and techniques for engaging with and producing filmic narratives, terms such as selection and compositing are not dissimilar to the techniques of postmodernism such as bricolage and parody. Manovich’s statement that “authentic creation has been replaced by the selection from a menu” echoes the argument forwarded by Frederic Jameson in his 1985 essay “Postmodernism and Consumer Society”. Here Jameson argues that the remediation of popular images annihilates the original referent which both jeopardizes historicity through over-mediation and retards the development of an aesthetic that is able to represent “our own current experience” (1985, 117). Following Jameson, Manovich posits that the process of selection naturalises “the flow of a different logic” which displaces the practice of “creating from scratch” (2001, 129). Although I agree with Manovich’s argument that the operations of selection and compositing have become a part of how we understand ourselves and others in the world, his assertion that an “authentic” form of authorship has been displaced is ultimately a utopian myth that he has inherited from the postmodern theory of Jameson. In Hot Spots, Avatars, and Narrative Fields Forever – Bunuel’s Legacy for New Digital Media and Interactive Database Narrative, Marsha Kinder refers to the operations of digital software as a “database aesthetic”, and articulates that this aesthetic does not alter communicative practices in any fundamental way, but rather “exposes or thematises the duel processes of selection and combination that lie at the heart of all stories and that are crucial to language” (2002, 6). In other words, selection and combination/ compositing/remix is an inherent component of both language and authorship. However, what has changed is how “new digital media and their critical discourse encourage us to rethink the distinctive interactive potential of earlier narrative forms” (Kinder 2002, 6). The ability to replicate, fragment and dismember cultural artifacts, and then remix, re-master, re-imagine, remediate and re-member that media in multifarious combinations not only generates alternative narratives, histories and memories, but also indicates the dynamic quality of media that has already entered the public consciousness.

The process of remix, particularly the operation of selection, used to construct Pixel Pirate elucidates the interactive and experiential nature of film spectatorship. That is to say that the remix reflects the ways that “film [already] circulates in fragmented form throughout not only the exterior landscape of popular culture, but also the interior landscape of the mind” (Columpar 2006). In order to vanquish Moses, Elvis is transformed into the Incredible Hulk.

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Figure 3: Courtesy of the Artists

However, before he is able to complete his mandate, he is annihilated by the Ghostbusters. Here Soda Jerk attribute fragments of disparate films to a single body, collapsing the distinction between screen and spectator, product and consumer. Having foreseen this sticky end, the Pixel Pirates have programmed the Elvis clone so that he will resurrect in three days in the guise of Jesus Christ. The resurrection of Elvis plays upon the cultural myths and conspiracy theories that claim that Elvis did not die on the 16th August 1977. The manifestation of Elvis as a Christ figure parodies his mythical status as “The King”, and the religious dedication of his fans which has kept his image alive for the thirty-one years since his death. In the DVD booklet, Soda_Jerk explain that “[o]ur hero is not the ‘original’ Elvis; it is the Elvis phenomenon – the figure multiplied, mashed and endlessly imitated.” Soda_Jerk utilise the image of Elvis as a symbol of the “ancient art of remix”, which illustrates Kinder’s assertion that the process of selection and combination precedes digital technologies. Although digital technology enables the reproduction, selection and compositing of canonic images and texts, the selection of Elvis as the protagonist of Pixel Pirate signals these operations as a legacy of pre-existing forms of parody, fandom and spectatorship; interactive practices that belie the seemingly hermetic narrative structure of traditional cinema.

Pixel Pirate exemplifies the ways in which artists and consumers challenge the binary relationship of authorship and spectatorship by drawing attention to the character, function and possibilities of imaging and audio technologies in the digital age. In the DVD booklet, Soda_Jerk define remixing as a “conceptual frontier that collapses the archaeology of contemporary commodity culture with the science of time travel”, one which reassembles the fragments of a bygone era to recognise “the hidden forces contained within the outmoded artifacts and myth-systems of the recent past”. Soda_Jerk echoes archaeologist Juan Antonio Barcelo’s assertion that archaeologists and historians are “not looking for objects, but actions which produced objects with special features” (2007, 437). Like archaeologists of a more traditional ilk who use archaeological data “to understand the dynamic nature of present society” (Barcelo 2007, 437), Soda_Jerk understands that the legacy of film history bears upon the ideological conditions and embodied experience of individuals in the present. As Paul Arthur asserts, discussion of history in relation to digital technology is “generally dominated by the very practical aspects of information preservation and retrieval” (2006). Soda_Jerk’s narrativisation and act of copyright infringement treats media samples as found cultural artifacts and reassembles them to illustrate the tension that exists between practices of production and consumption, and history and memory in the digital era. In the DVD booklet Soda_Jerk qualify their practice of remix:

To clear the vast number of samples involved in this project would not only have been astronomically time consuming but also financially impossible. The present cost of sample licensing is notoriously prohibitive…This situation places the art of remix squarely in the hands of those with money – branded artists and corporate advertising. A depressing fate which owes its evolution to fan communities, the avant-garde and Afro-diasporic audio cultures…copyright is not just about cash, it’s also about control. Money doesn’t buy you sample rights unless you’re using those samples in a way that is pleasing to the proprietor (i.e. not mashing Elvis with Jesus). The battle over copyright then is also the battle over history – what is at stake is the very relationship of the past to the present.

Soda_Jerk’s characterisation of copyright as a battle over history reflects the positions of cultural theorists Alison Landsberg (2004) and Marita Sturken (1997), who characterize the immediacy of the moving and photographic image in contemporary culture as inextricable from personal memory, cultural memory and official history. Sturken offers the example of veterans of World War II whose experience of battle have been subsumed “into a more general script” as a result of watching Hollywood movies that dramatise the war (1997, 6). This example exemplifies how personal experience of media is inextricable from lived experiences, and how a relationship to personal history is compromised by laws that prohibit an active engagement with and use of culturally produced audio-visual technologies. By remixing samples from discreet and disparate media texts into the body of a single text, Soda_Jerk illustrate how “texts decreasingly take the material form of durable marks inscribed on paper and increasingly manifest themselves as electronic polarities, the bodies within (and without) electronic documents undergo correlated transformations in embodiment” (Hayles 2004, 257). Like bodies that remember the disparate temporalities of viewing this or that film – memories which are formative of individual experience and identity – Pixel Piratelike other remixes and mash-ups come to represent this postmodern experience of being in a world mediated by audio-visual technology.

Despite this philosophical affinity with archaeological practices, Soda_Jerk exceed the archaeological mandate and employ digital technology to creatively fragment and reassemble popular cultural media and propel the past and present “into a new constellation”, a process that they describe as “retro-futurism”. This new constellation reveals how the new technological frontiers of cinema depend upon the “reflexivity of embodied spectatorship” and not “fantasies of disembodiment and absorption into virtual worlds” (Rabinovitz 2004, 100). Landsberg contends that the affective traces left by experiences of spectatorship facilitate the “conditions for ethical thinking precisely by encouraging people to feel connected to, while recognizing the alterity of the ‘other’” (2004, 9). Landsberg here situates herself in opposition to Jameson by arguing that it is the age of consumerism, of technological reproducibility, that enables the cinema to facilitate a political action because the experiential nature of spectatorship dissolves the differences between authentic and mass-mediated memories (2004, 15). Although Landsberg’s own focus is the potential of cinema to form political alliances between marginalized communities, her recourse to embodied experience to argue that mass reproduction in late-capitalist culture is precisely what enables a political cinema is coextensive with the position articulated by Soda_Jerk. However, Soda_Jerk claim mass-produced visual and aural images as a personal and cultural history, and utilise these images to render a database narrative that subverts the dominant narrative of the passive spectator. By remediating cultural images, Soda_Jerk adhere to Walter Benjamin’s characterization of history which states that to “articulate the past historically… means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger…which unexpectedly appears to a man singled out by history” (1968, 255). Benjamin regards the subjective and inter-subjective nature of memory as a potent political weapon for affecting “both the content of tradition and its receivers” (1968, 255). The database aesthetic and digital software are utilised in Pixel Pirate to open up narrative possibilities: the act of remix triggers personal memory, cultural memory and official film histories to claim media as a dynamic cultural experience.

As illustrated by Kinder, the rhetoric of digital software operations has offered a new language of interactivity that is able to re-imagine the spectator as a site of cultural production. Furthermore, as was elucidated through an analysis of Pixel Pirates, digital software has offered a new means of expressing the interactive relationship shared between individuals, society and various media. By illegally sampling copyright works using widely available digital software, Soda_Jerk and Smith also exemplify the political potential of contemporary media, directly challenging the status quo. In the DVD booklet, Soda_Jerk conclude by stating:
“The remix is nothing less than a politics of time, and one worth the battle. We believe that we have used each of the samples fairly. But whether our sampling constitutes an act of “fair use” is a matter we can discuss with your lawyers”. What emerges in the stated politics of Soda_Jerk is a tension between the individual and cultural experience of media, and economic and histrionic power structures that rely upon a strict delineation of production and consumption. Pixel Pirate illustrates how access to, and expression through cultural artifacts is an essential means of understanding contemporary conditions of existence. This is due to the immediacy of audio-visual media in consumer culture, and its affective nature. Remixes and mash-ups utilise digital technologies in a manner that elucidates the ways that bodies are transformed by, and in turn transform, media.

Bibliography

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Barcelo, J. A. 2007. “Automatic Archaeology: Bridging the Gap Between Virtual Reality, Artificial Intelligence, and Archaeology.” Theorizing Digital Culture: A Critical Discourse, edited by Fiona Cameron and Sarah Kenderdine, 438-454. Cambridge, MA, USA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Baudry, J. 1986. The Apparatus: Metapsychological Approaches to the Impression of Reality. In Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Theory Reader, edited by Phillip Rosen, 299-318. Originally published in 1975 in Communications (23) and translated in 1976 Camera Obscura (Fall), (1):104-28.

Benjamin, W. 1968. “Theses on the Philosophy of History”. In Illuminations, 253-264. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovsnovich Inc.

Bolter, J. D. and R. Grusin. 1999. “The Remediated Self”. In Remediation, 230-241. MIT University Press.

Columpar, C. 2006. “Re-Membering the Time-Travel Film: From La Jetee to Primer”. Refractory: A Journal of Entertainment Media 9 (July),
http://blogs.arts.unimelb.edu.au/refractory/2006/07/04/re-membering-the-time-travel-film-from-la-jetee-to-primer-corinn-columpar/

Hayles, K.N. 2004. “Bodies of Texts, Bodies of Subjects: Metaphoric Networks in New Media”. Memory Bites: History, Technology and Digital Culture, edited by L. Rabinovitz and A. Geil, 257-282. Duke University Press.

Jameson, F. 1985. “Postmodernism and Consumer Society”. Post-Modern Culture, edited by Hal Foster, 111-125. Pluto Press.

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Landsberg, A. 2004. “Introduction: Memory, Modernity, Mass Culture”. Prosthetic Memory: The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture, 1-24. New York: Columbia University Press.

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Metz, C. 1983. “The Imaginary Signifier”. Psychoanalysis and Cinema: The Imaginary Signifier. The MacMillan Press: London.

Mulvey, L. 1977 [1975]. Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. In Women and the Cinema: A Critical Anthology, edited by K. Kay and G. Peary, 412-428. New York: Dutton.

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Filmography

Donnie Darko. Directed by Richard Kelly. 2001.
Ghostbusters. Directed by Ivan Reitman. 1984.
Hulk. Directed by Ang Lee. 2003.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Directed by Steven Spielberg. 1989.
Karate Kid, The. Directed by John G. Avildsen. 1984.
Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. Directed by Simon West. 2001.
Pixel Pirate II: Attack of the Astro Elvis Video Clone, Soda_Jerk and Sam Smith, 2002-2006.
Soda_Jerk. (Cited 7 November 2008). Available from http://sodajerk.com.au
Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope. Directed by George Lucas. 1977.
Ten Commandments, The. Directed by Cecille B. DeMille. 1956.

Notes

[1] Copyright is a pertinent issue in relation to new digital technologies; however it is a concern that is tangendental to the focus of this essay. For a detailed analysis of how copyright laws in Australia and the United States impacts upon remix culture see Rimmer, (2007).

[2]“Fair use” is a grey area in copyright law in both Australia and the United States. At present it covers transformative uses such as parody, however its extension to cover mash-ups is still a largely contested area. See Rimmer (2007).

Author Bio

Amanda Trevisanut is a PhD candidate in the Department of Culture and Communication at The University of Melbourne. She is currently working on her thesis entitled ‘Multi-Cultural Identity and SBS Commissioned Content’.

Contact Email: a.trevisanut@pgrad.unimelb.edu.au